How to Identify a Red-Tailed Hawk

Not sure which hawk you're seeing? Here's how to tell whether a bird of prey is a red-tailed hawk, based on plumage, behavior and more.

278094126 1 Keith Calhoun Bnb Bypc 2021, red-tailed hawkCourtesy Keith Calhoun
Red-tailed hawk

Every birder knows it—hawks are some of the trickiest birds to identify. Sure, it’s almost always obvious when you’ve seen a hawk. But which hawk? Red-tailed hawks are widespread across most of the country, so there’s a good chance the big bird of prey you’ve spotted is a red-tailed hawk. Here’s how to know for sure.

Red-Tailed Hawk Features

red tailed hawkCourtesy Gay Raab

Like other hawks, red-taileds have a sharp, curved bill. This allows them to easily tear apart their prey. (Here’s which foods hawks eat.) Their large, deep eyes provide excellent vision and are typically dark-colored. In the case of a juvenile red-tailed hawk, birding experts Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman note that the eyes are yellow. Four talons on each foot capture and hold prey.

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There’s plenty of bulk to this hawk’s stature, so you might assume it’s a heavy bird. But you would be wrong. Despite its height of 2 feet and its 4-foot wingspan, it weighs less than 3 pounds.

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Red-Tailed Hawk Plumage

275538363 1 Clifford Price Bnb Bypc 2021Courtesy Clifford Price
Look for a light colored belly streaked with brown feathers.

Identifying red-taileds based on plumage can be tough. The Kaufmans note there are many different plumage variations among red-tailed hawks, with a majority of the birds having white or light-colored chests. Others, however, have reddish brown or almost black underparts.

In the case of a “typical” red-tailed hawk, the bird sports dark brown feathers on its back, face and wings, and a light-colored belly streaked with brown feathers. The Kaufmans say reddish red-tails are referred to as “rufous morphs,” and they tend to live in the West.

Here’s how to identify a Cooper’s hawk vs a sharp-shinned hawk.

Do Red-Tailed Hawks Have Red Tails?

red tailed hawk, hawk identificationCourtesy Terry Moore
Juvenile birds do not have the red tail feathers.

A surefire way to tell an adult red-tailed from a juvenile is to look at its tail. Adults feature red feathers on their tails, while juveniles’ tails are a darker brown. The Kaufmans explain that the younger birds don’t show reddish tail feathers until they are at least a year old.

Learn more about raptors, amazing birds of prey.

Red-Tailed Hawk Behavior

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Red-tailed hawk in flight

These hawks like to hang out perched along roadsides; they have a habit of soaring with barely a flap of their wings. They’re commonly found in open country, but they’ve moved into cities and suburbs in recent years.

Surprisingly, smaller birds might be more tolerant of a red-tailed hawk’s presence than other birds of prey. The Kaufmans mention that unlike Cooper’s hawks or peregrine falcons, red-taileds aren’t usually fast enough to catch a bird.

Next, discover why crows chase hawks.

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Emily Hannemann
Emily Hannemann is an associate digital editor for Birds & Blooms. She has a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in magazine writing from the University of Missouri - Columbia. When she’s not writing and editing, you’ll find her swimming, running, or hiking. She knows blue jays are controversial, but she loves them anyway.